Nina Ananiashvili: Dancing to serve her country

November 5, 2011

This is not the first time that the internationally renowned ballerina Nina Ananiashvili has found herself in a tricky position. And as usual, her extraordinary artistry is part of the solution.

The former Bolshoi Star, a long-limbed firecracker with glamorous eyes, has danced her way out of corners before. Back in the late 1980s, after another dancer’s defection led the paranoid bureaucracy of the Bolshoi Ballet to seize Ananiashvili’s passport and refuse to let her travel, the young ballerina with a spine of steel delivered an ultimatum: My freedom or my resignation. And with that, she leveraged her sparkling technique and matchless charisma into a personal, artistic and professional coup, securing official permission to perform with companies outside the Soviet bloc.

Ananiashvili went on to further fame as one of American Ballet Theatre’s most popular principal dancers and a guest star with major companies around the world, while always returning to Moscow to dance and train.

But here’s what’s unusual now: Her celebrated dancing is, in a rather personal way, part of the problem.

At age 48, she can’t stop. She’s tired, and she has a young daughter with whom she longs to spend time. She also has a company to run, the State Ballet of Georgia, based in Tbilisi, Ananiashvili’s home town. But that’s just it: A raft of young dancers and the cultural prestige of her homeland depend on her name, her box-office appeal. She has to dance to get folks in the door.

Ananiashvili has been artistic director of the Georgian company since 2004. Soon after the bloodless demonstrations of the “Rose Revolution,” in which the New York-educated Mikheil Saakashvili took over as president from the ousted Eduard Shevardnadze, Saakashvili asked Ananiashvili to revive the national ballet company. Following Georgia’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and the civil war and economic crisis that followed, the troupe was in tatters and rarely performed.

The request — by a midday phone call — took the ballerina by surprise. But how could Ananiashvili, whose global success had allowed her to escape her nation's troubles, now turn down the young president who saw his country’s ballet company as a symbol of Georgian pride and independence?

“Because it was proposal from the president, I want to help my country,” says Ananiashvili, speaking by phone recently from the company’s headquarters in Tbilisi, where she was taking a break from rehearsal. She speaks fluent, charmingly staccato English, with a soft accent. “It was difficult for me to say no. I just say, ‘Let me try.’ ”

The ballerina had no experience running a company. She was still enjoying her twin careers at ABT and the Bolshoi. But she moved back to Tbilisi, where she had not lived since she was a child. (A junior figure-skating champion, she had moved to Moscow at age 13 to study ballet.) She found deplorable conditions, no electricity, few supplies — and no pay for the dancers. She told them salaries would come — eventually — if they stuck with her. And then she called on her many friends throughout the ballet world to help train the dancers in a whole new repertoire of European choreography — works by Denmark’s August Bournonville and England’s Frederick Ashton — and neoclassical ballets by George Balanchine, the native son who had modernized the art form a world away.

A dance of survival

After previous successful tours to Japan, Italy and New York, Ananiashvili will finally bring her dancers to Washington. On Sunday, Ananiashvili and 10 of her dancers will perform at Lisner Auditorium, in what stands to be the most interesting ballet event of the season. On the program are three short works by Alexei Ratmansky, the former Bolshoi director and one of the most important ballet choreographers to come along in years. He is now an artist -in-residence at ABT and has created works for the premiere companies around the world, but it was Ananiashvili who helped launch his career. Some years ago at a gala in Moscow, she saw him perform a small piece he had created, and asked him to make a little dance for her and a few others.

“It was his first experiment in making ballet,” she says. How did she know Ratmansky would be good at it? “It’s something you cannot explain. I was feeling his talent.”

That work, “Charms of Mannerisms,” a character study of four dancers, will be on the Lisner program, along with “Dreams About Japan,” a fantasy of Kabuki, with Japanese drumming, and “Bizet Variations,” a romantic work for six, with a little-known Bizet piano score. Ratmansky created the last two for the Georgian ballet at Ananiashvili’s request.

So what is the tricky part? It’s the gymnastics of Ananiashvili’s job. Long past the age when most ballerinas have stopped icing their aching feet and have taken their final bows, Ananiashvili is not only directing the company but also dancing with it. Nearing 50, Ananiashvili is still seducing princes in “Swan Lake,” still transforming flesh into airy melancholy as the virginal ghost in “Giselle,” still putting in hours at the barre in daily classes. She’d like to stop, she says. But she needs to dance to secure bookings for her troupe.

“This job is two times more than when I was just working for myself,” she says.

“It’s hard work, what can I say to you,” she continues with a rueful laugh. “Every day is like before. You need to be healthy and take care of yourself, and work more even. I try to do this. I don’t have other options, I need to do it. I want to have my company, want to introduce Georgia State Ballet to world.”

‘Freedom is freedom’

A lot rests on Ananiashvili’s slender shoulders. She isn’t just a company director; she’s a goodwill ambassador for a country emerging from the shadows and eager to show its sophisticated side.

“This is nice place to perform, trust me!” she says of the Georgian capital, with more laughter. “I want to make it as prestigious as it was in Soviet time.” The Georgian ballet “always had a big reputation. All great Russian dancers were dancing in Tbilisi. We have great opera house where people performed here. I want to continue to do this.”

She has a grand event coming up: On March 18, she will celebrate her 30th year onstage with a gala in the capital. No doubt it will draw a significant crowd — with her distinctive warmth and a dazzling mix of athleticism and sensuality, Ananiashvili, as Washington fans will recall from her memorable performances over the years here, forges a singular connection with her audience.

“She is so spontaneous, and the energy she has is incomparable to any other dancer,” says Herman Cornejo, a principal dancer at ABT. Now 30, he says he has admired Ananiashvili since he was 14 and in his native Argentina, watching her rehearse the “Black Swan” pas de deux from “Swan Lake” with her longtime partner, Julio Bocca.

“When you dance with her, she is actually looking in your eyes,” says Cornejo. “She is really feeling the moment and giving it all to you. . . . It is so comforting, that confidence that she gives; it makes you feel very special and calm onstage.”

Yet that sense of calm has only come recently to Ananiashvili herself. It’s one of the benefits of aging, she says. You’re liberated from fear.

“It’s really interesting: When you’re older you know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. The stage experience and control help you. If I go onstage, doesn’t matter what can happen — I can fix it. I’m not scared. When I was younger, I would worry about everything.

“Now, when I’m onstage I also try to look at how is company dancing now.” She laughs. “It’s difficult, but I do it.”

Also difficult: Leaving behind her 5-year-old daughter, Elena, when she tours. In Tbilisi, the child watches when her mother dances, or they watch the other company members together.

Dancing, running the company, having a child and husband who is the Georgian minister of foreign affairs — there is never enough time.

“Most difficult for me is time,” says Ananiashvili with a laugh. “This year, time is running much faster than before. Everything comes quicker. Maybe it’s technology; everything goes much quicker.” She pauses. “Maybe it’s age, also.”

But still, she is driven to keep up with the clock — or rather, to beat it. To cheat time, as in the case of her dancing, which defies the natural rhythm of a dancer’s career.

“Her freedom onstage is what makes her a great ballerina,” Julio Bocca told The Washington Post in an interview some years ago. True enough, but it’s not just onstage. Ananiashvili is drawn to freedom, to defying boundaries, in so many aspects of her life.

In the end, it seems that what drives Ananiashvili is what has fueled so many revolutionaries and poets, whether in countries of suffering or in cramped garrets or on grand stages. It is a quest for freedom, which, for Ananiashvili, is clear in her age-defying dancing and in her imaginative company leadership — even as that quest had its roots in her defiance of ballerina decorum at the Bolshoi all those years ago.

“I’m lucky person, because I see how it was and what I have now,” says the unquiet dancer.

“You know, freedom is freedom,” Ananiashvili continues, speaking slowly, groping for a way to explain what life is like now for her dancers and her homeland. Suddenly, she finds it: “Look at animals — they have really dangerous life when they’re free; lots of dangerous things can happen. But if you take an animal and put it in a cage — say it is a bird — and you feed this animal very well, you give every day food and water, but then you open window for one second, what this bird will do?”

The words tumble out now, as if Ananiashvili is arguing with the ghostly bureaucrats from her past.

“Fly to freedom, right? Even though we know it’s very dangerous life out there, this is freedom — you fly to freedom. We are thinking like we are in the cage. Now we have free area to breathe and do.”

kaufmans@washpost.com

Ananiashvili-Ratmansky Ballet Gala

featuring Nina Ananiashvili and dancers from the State Ballet of Georgia in works by Alexei Ratmansky, with musicians from the Bolshoi Orchestra, 6:30 p.m. Sunday at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium, 730 21st St. NW. Tickets $45-115, available at the Lisner box office, 202-397-7328, or visit www.ticketmaster.com.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, church basements, fairground tents and lawn chairs, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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